One of Verdi's greatest operas, based on one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, returned to the Metropolitan Opera last night in a splendid staging of Otello with the incomparable Renee Fleming delivering a sublime performance as the ill-fated Desdemona and an ailing John Botha providing a stirring portrayal of the title role.
For any opera lover, or for anyone who just wants to find out what the operatic fuss is all about, the Met is offering its matinee performance of Otello on Saturday, Oct. 27, as the second of this season's Live in HD performances at some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries around the world. If you want to see opera at its best, get tickets early.
Otello had its premier at LaScala 125 years ago and Verdi himself was unsure of its merits. It had been 15 years since Aida, his last previous opera, and now in his 70's he didn't know whether he was up to the task. But Shakespeare's great tragedy was a lure, and when the opening-night curtain came down, Verdi was greeted with thunderous applause and admirers pulled his carriage through the streets of Milan.
The composer and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, open the opera with the second act of Shakespeare's play. Otello and Desdemona are already in residence on Cyprus. The Moor, a general in Venice's army and governor of Cyprus, is returning from a war against the Turks but a storm is raging and his ship is in peril. The opening scene, from the first bars onward, is one of the most fearsome tempests ever put to music.
Verdi's score for Otello runs a gamut from the great crash and thunder of waves at the outset to a tender love duet between Otello and Desdemona at the end of first act ("Gia nella notte densa"), to moody and brooding philosophical reflection by Iago on the nature of evil ("Credo in un Dio crudel"), to a rousing oath of vengeance by Otello and Iago ("Si, pel ciel"), to Desdemona's heart-wrenching "Willow Song" that segues into her "Ave Maria" in the final scene. The opera sealed the composer's credentials as a complete musical dramatist, one for whom the music serves the play and the characters rather than the other way around.
The return of Otello to the Met stage provides an ideal vehicle for Ms. Fleming, who can still be convincing as a naïve young woman in love, albeit one a bit careless with her handkerchiefs, so well-bred and chaste she cannot bring herself even to say the word "whore." Fleming's rich, full tones, as true as crystal, can produce such gentleness, anguish, and prayerful pleading that she could break your heart. An accomplished actress, her deft phrasing creates a real empathy with one of the theater's most pitiable characters.
Botha, who presents a figure that is every inch a commanding general, has a powerful voice, though it seemed a bit strained in a couple of passages in the opening acts. An announcement at intermission that he was suffering from allergies explained those lapses, and he sang with increasing strength in the second half. His rendering of the final scene was at once chilling and touching.
Falk Struckmann was excellent throughout as Iago, one of literature's most consummate villains. Blessed with a luxuriant baritone that commands attention, he could almost convince the audience that Desdemona had been unfaithful. His "Credo" at the top of the second act was almost frightening in its intensity, especially in the closing bars when he rhetorically asks what comes after death ("E poi? E poi?").
The Met orchestra, under the capable baton of Semyon Bychkov, played brilliantly, especially in the soft passages of the final scenes.